Viktor/Viktoria/Victor/Victoria

Victor Saville’s film FIRST A GIRL is the middle film in the cycle begun by Reinhardt Schünzel’s VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA and concluded, as of this date, by Blake Edwards’ film VICTOR VICTORIA and musical play, Victor/Victoria. Though dealing with male/female impersonation (a woman pretending to be a male impersonator), all iterations of the story seem as much gay as trans.

It’s very interesting that these films, made before our modern attitudes semi-coalesced, should seem so modern and forward-thinking. The Schünzel original was a spoof of the English music hall, with its omnipresent drag artistes, but an affectionate one. The character played by Sonny Hale in Saville’s film, reads as Obviously Gay, even though (a) he’s played by the husband of Jessie Matthews, the female lead, and (b) an unconvincing hetero romance is contrived for him in the third act. The object of his affections is Anna Lee, who gets a sexy shower scene and seems the least ambiguous figure, but even she can’t wholly dismiss the whiff of acidulated queeniness Hale projects so ably.

Jessie Matthews is never not obviously a girl, even when clad in a tux, just as Renate Müller was always a girl in the original (Julie Andrews does suggest a Bowie-like androgyny), and the obvious artifice probably helped everyone feel comfortable, who might otherwise be inclined not to be (the original came out in Germany in 1933, an extraordinary thing). Griffith Jones is a bit dull as lead boy, but he’s handsome at a time when so many British leading men were scarred, stout or snaggle-toothed, and has an ambiguous quality that suits the part. The most daring aspect of the film is the hero who falls for a girl he believes to be a boy. You can see how a German film doing this might be poking fun at the British, but a British film doing it is quite close to playing the notion straight, as it were.

Matthews is a delight, gets several spectacular musical numbers, costumed by Coco Chanel, and while the plotting isn’t perfect — Lee has to step up to the role of villainess, then hurriedly step down — it’s simpler and more efficient than Edwards’ multivalent farce narrative. And it’s huge fun.

FIRST A GIRL stars Millie the Non-Stop Variety Girl; Freddie Rathbone; Bronwyn; Narcy; Wackford Squeers; and Miss Havisham.

8 Responses to “Viktor/Viktoria/Victor/Victoria”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    It’s interesting that female transvestism is regarded as playful and charming, while male transvestism is widely seen as threatening a9though “Ru-Paul’s Drag Race” may be changing all that) Edwards “Victor/Victoria” is a triumph. Not only is it one of his bestfilms it’s one of Robert Preston’s too. When hewon “Best Supporting Actor” from the Los Angeles Film Critics he hung around and chatted with us all about his career, mentioning for instance how much fun it was to work for DeMille on “Union Pacific.”

    In Edwards film he cleverly established tat the characters in to story believe Julie Andrews to be a gay man making a name for himself as a drag artiste. Thus we don’t have to and can simply sit back and enjoy the show. I especially love THIS NUMBER in which the characters celebrate themselves with the actors celebrating themselves at the same time.

  2. Drag in Britain has always been mainstream, in certain forms. We grew up with Stanley Baxter on TV, a wildly camp, Scottish comic who delighted in impersonating his favourite movie stars.

    But there’s huge transphobia too — away from the showbiz context, it still seems to disturb people.

  3. Some time ago went through a bunch of Jessie Matthews films (VCI put out bargain-priced collections of her, Will Hay and Norman Wisdom). Most of the time I felt she was better than her vehicles, which tended to be undercooked if affable farces. Fred and Ginger usually had better scripts.

    “The Good Companions” is an exception, but an oddball. It begins with various losers, some of them pretty depressing, connecting with a stranded variety troupe. Kittenish Matthews is paired with John Gielgud as a songwriting schoolteacher. Then there’s “Friday the Thirteenth”, another oddity, that pairs her with young Ralph Richardson as another schoolmaster. That one centers on a bus crash with a fatality; we get several stories in flashback and wait to find out who’s going to die. Neither is strictly a vehicle for Matthews.

    “Evergreen” is a musical comedy I haven’t seen in years, and thematically in the ballpark with “First, a Girl”. Based on a Rodgers and Hart musical, it’s about a young woman who impersonates her famous mother (the mother was pregnant out of wedlock, so she dropped out of sight and eventually died abroad). A cheerier, upbeat version of “Fedora”. “Cover Girl” with Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly comes close to the same story, but instead of a masquerade it centers on an old rejected lover of Rita’s mother, seeing her as a second chance (he tries to fix her up with his protégé / surrogate son).

  4. Evergreen is one I have to see, still. Jessie nearly went to Hollywood to work with Fred Astaire, but her personal life imploded at that exact moment. She was a great dancer, some thought her better than Ginger.

  5. Mark E Fuller Says:

    Evergreen is a must-see David; not just prime Jessie, but the fantastic Betty Balfour giving her all in her last major film role.

  6. Say no more!

  7. This was one of my highlights from the last in-person Cambridge Film Festival, back in 2019. Quite a lot of fun, and unexpectedly memorable.I wrote a brief review of it at the time: https://takeonecinema.net/2019/first-a-girl/

  8. theredshoes1 Says:

    Fiona here. Can’t seem to sign in through FB. ANYWAY, Here’s the aforementioned Stanley Baxter spoofing Marlene Dietrich AND Gracie Fields movies. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbogNixPZvM

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